Olives ripen on the tree in the newly planted olive grove at Lightning Ridge Cellars in Elgin. Photo by Pat McNamara

A little four-acre plot of land at Lightning Ridge Cellars in Elgin sat quietly growing weeds as the rest of the acreage was busily producing grapes for the fine Italian wines the vineyard is known for. Owner Ann Roncone decided that ‘unemployment’ was unacceptable for her otherwise hard-working acreage, so she put this weed-filled four acres to work growing olive trees.

Having just celebrated the ten-year anniversary of the successful vineyard, Roncone was looking for a little something different and less labor intensive than grapes to plant on this empty piece of land.

Keeping with the Italian theme, olive trees were the crop of choice. In 2016, she ordered 162 seedlings for her first attempt at this new endeavor. Olive trees are an evergreen and can be a bit fussy about cold weather, and she had a winter kill of about half of the trees her first year. Not to be discouraged, in 2017 Roncone replaced those killed with another planting, but lost half of those to cold the second year. Still undaunted by these setbacks, Roncone replaced the dead trees with bigger, older trees in 2018 and now has a bumper crop of olives ready for processing into olive oil.

Before buying the trees, Roncone researched the equipment needed to turn olives into olive oil and found a little factory in Italy that manufactured ‘olive mills’ especially for small business production. The mill makes the operation fairly simple. Once the olives have been properly cleaned and washed, they are poured into the receiving hopper where a screw feeds them to the crusher that reduces the olives into a paste. The paste falls into a lower mixer, where a helicoidally shaped stirrer prepares it for extraction. A pump then sends the paste to a decanter where separation takes place. Extra virgin olive oil pours from a spout on the front of the machine and the paste exits the back.

The mill just arrived this month and as soon as the grape processing for this year’s wine is complete, the olive mill will be put to use. Roncone hoped to have the oil ready for sale at the end of October.

Unlike wine, olive oil is best when it is fresh, so the olives will be harvested just before processing and bottling.

Roncone will start with an ‘Estate Extra Virgin’ oil and as the business grows, hopes to add more varieties, by using herbs and spices for flavoring.

Lightning Ridge Cellars is located at 2268 Hwy 83 in Elgin. The tasting room is open 11a.m – 4p.m., Friday through Sunday.